At the beginning of the Book of Revelation, it’s revealed that Jesus himself has instructed John the apostle to not only write down what he’s seen but also to send accounts of his vision along with specific missives to the “seven churches in Asia” (Rv 1:4, 11), those being, Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Each of these congregations, then, received a unique word from God through the pen of John, with the precise language of these letters found in Revelation 2–3. What’s clear in each of the seven letters is Jesus’s inexorable determination to stir and to strengthen the faith of his children in each church body. As every church context was different, so is the language employed — but, nonetheless, the intent is still the same. Through his apostle, Christ aims to reorient and reinvigorate his people through a revelation of himself. (Rv 1:1)
And so it is that as John writes the seventh of these letters to the church at Laodicea, he does so in such a way that he might disrupt their leisurely lives with the urgency and currency of the gospel.
Lay of the land.
Laodicea was a prominent city, laying approximately 90 miles east of Ephesus and 11 miles west of Colossae. I note the geography of this town because integral to understanding what John does in this letter is understanding what Paul wrote decades prior. Near the end of his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul writes the following:
Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. He is always wrestling for you in his prayers, so that you can stand mature and fully assured in everything God wills. For I testify about him that he works hard for you, for those in Laodicea, and for those in Hierapolis. Luke, the dearly loved physician, and Demas send you greetings. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her home. After this letter has been read at your gathering, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea. (Col 4:12–16)
Paul’s heart isn’t only for the Colossians but for the Laodiceans to, likewise, be strengthened by his epistle — which, in fact, many believe to have been a “circular letter,” that is, a letter that was circulated throughout local churches. This, I believe, is significant once the intent of Colossians is brought to light. The apostle’s purpose is stated quite clearly at the beginning of the second chapter.
For I want you to know how greatly I am struggling for you, for those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me in person. I want their hearts to be encouraged and joined together in love, so that they may have all the riches of complete understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery — Christ. (Col 2:1–2)
I would have you pay careful attention to that phrase, “all the riches of complete understanding” of “God’s mystery,” of the gospel. It’s not by mistake or happenstance that Paul employs financial language when speaking to the Colossians and Laodiceans. Nor is it coincidental that John similarly speaks in monetary terms. Such language, no doubt, would’ve cut to the quick of each of the Laodiceans’ lives.
Leisure and luxury.
Laodicea, you see, was an extremely wealthy town which was populated by prosperous citizens in various industries but specializing in finance and textiles. It is said that the city was especially known for its manufacturing of black woolen cloth, which held high value in trade and commerce centers. Its profitability is further understood by remembering the terrible earthquake of A.D. 60 which utterly leveled the city and the fact that its entire infrastructure was rebuilt without the aid of Roman subsidies. The Laodiceans outright refused the imperial assistance of Rome and restored their city of their own means. To be sure, the Laodiceans were wealthy, affluent people.
And so it is that Paul’s and John’s letters to them deal so strongly with economic language. It’s clear to me that Jesus’s emphasis to the church at Laodicea, through the inspired pens of his apostles, seems to be a stern reminder about where they ought to find their true treasure, where they were to invest their lives. Not in the industry they can amass here “under the sun,” but in the inheritance of the incarnate Son of God, in whom is found the express image of the fullness of God himself and with whom is given the gift of redemption. (Col 1:12–17)
The Laodiceans might’ve appeared wealthy and well-off, but Christ perceived their truly impoverished state. To the human eye they appeared “healthy, wealthy, and wise,” yet the Spirit of God knew them for who they truly were: a spiritually broke people coasting in leisure and luxury. Notwithstanding the riches they enjoyed “under the sun,” they accumulated no spiritual wealth on which to boast. Therefore, in this missive to the church at Laodicea, I think three noteworthy truths rise to the surface regarding how the gospel of God totally disrupts our leisure.
A lesson about spiritual work.
The Spirit of God begins his counsel by examining the Laodiceans’ works, rather, their lack of works. He calls attention to their tepid, apathetic attitude towards the things of God. “I know your works,” the Spirit incisively says, “that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot.” (Rev. 3:15) “No one else may know you,” he seems to say, “but I do. I know the true you. I see through your spiritual, religious façade, and it disgusts me.” I, like you, perhaps, have heard a number of sermons utilizing this passage as inspiration for more intensified spiritual passion, no doubt in the context of missions or evangelistic settings. “Are you on fire for God?” the preacher might say. “Be hot for Jesus!” I find myself squirming at such language and not just because it sounds awkward, but because I don’t think that was the Spirit’s original intent. His counsel, here, is geared more towards the ends of “be spiritually healthy.”
It’s not that cold and hot here represent opposite poles on a spiritual spectrum of discipleship and dedication. God’s words to them are, “You are lukewarm. I’d rather you be cold or hot” (Rev. 3:15) — by which he’s not inviting them to coldness of spirit. Rather, by this he means to inspire a reinvigoration of spiritual health and fervor and vitality. Water that’s lukewarm offers neither refreshment (like cold water) or remedy (like hot water). Lukewarmness is, in effect, worthless, useless.
“I know your works,” the Spirit says to them. God, the searcher of hearts knew that for which their hearts were truly pining. The Laodiceans were more interested in their lucrative businesses than the business of the gospel. Wealth and financial success had made them indifferent toward spiritual works. Within this church, there existed neither a brightly burning zeal for the things of God nor outright rejection of him. Instead, there festered a nauseating case of lukewarmness — a condition so nauseating and disgusting to our Lord Jesus that he’d rather vomit them out of his mouth. (Rev. 3:16) Which isn’t to say that he’s removing the promise of salvation from them. Rather, he’s vehemently disrupting their leisurely, apathetic attitude toward the things of God.
And so it is that we see just how much God despises lukewarm, lackadaisical Christianity. Those who profess Christ but reserve for themselves lives of worldly comfort and safety and security are revolting and repulsive. “Five thousand members of a church all lukewarm will be five thousand impediments,” says Charles Spurgeon. Not that we can’t enjoy the prosperity with which God blesses us, but where’s the gospel for you? What’s your priority? Your riches in industry or riches in redemption? Such is what the Spirit of God admonishes in this letter.
The Laodiceans appeared to be okay with their status quo Christian lives. They were okay being “unconcerned spectators” on the sidelines of the Great Commission. But such a position doesn’t exist in the business of the gospel. “You are,” writes Octavius Winslow, “either for Christ, or you are against Christ. In this great controversy between Christ and Satan, you are not an indifferent and unconcerned spectator.”1 The gospel of God, the revelation of Jesus Christ, is not a collection of spiritual theories that serve as endless debate fodder for academics and scholars alike. It is the glad tidings of great joy that announces Jesus’s restoration and rescue project for all creation. And with this announcement comes specific implications in tow. (Namely, the Fruit of the Spirit. See Gal 5:22–23.) Where you find redeemed people, you will find evidences of their redemption.
A lesson about spiritual wealth.
The Laodiceans enjoyed lives of luxury and leisure. Their metropolitan lifestyles afforded them many prosperous indulgences seldom enjoyed by neighboring cities. They practiced extravagant lifestyles that flaunted their self-assure and self-sufficient outlooks. But for all their wealth and prosperity, they were blind to who they truly were — to who they were in the eyes of God. “For you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,’ and you don’t realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.” (Rv 3:17) Wealth had not only made them apathetic and indifferent towards the things of God, it had blinded them of their need for God. They considered themselves financially and spiritually wealthy — but in God’s eyes they were bankrupt, “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, naked.”
This censure from the Lord Jesus isn’t necessarily because of their finances, rather, it was because of their faith. They mistook their financial success for self-sufficiency, giving them a false sense of security. This is the classic pattern of those blessed by God: mistaking his blessing for their own abilities. It’s easy to assign the Spirit’s blessing on our profitability and mistake the fact that we are dreadfully out of step with God’s words and ways. And rather than being “rich towards God” (Lk 12:21), we are often “rich towards ourselves.” This is when we need to pray for the Spirit’s grace which not only helps us in our need, but also open our eyes to recognize our need. Such is how the Spirit of God counsels this church.
I advise you to buy from me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed, and ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see. (Rv 3:18)
Christ’s counsel to this church constitutes the precise remedy to account for all their spiritual needs. Notice how completely Jesus’s words to them resolves their insolvency. In him they find dress to cover their nakedness. And not just any dress, mind you, these are white robes of his own righteousness, the very “garments of salvation.” (Is 61:10) In him their pitiful, poor estate is suffused with Christ’s riches. In him their sightless eyes would be mended by his gracious balm. In Jesus Christ alone they would be venerated, clothed, and made to see again.
What’s more, the word “buy,” here, is the same word for “redeem,” meaning “to buy back.” Rather than investing their time and money and energy in increasing their industrious reach in this world, Jesus’s declaration to them is to invest in spiritual wealth. Invest in the gospel. To find their treasure in God’s free redemption. (Rv 21:6; Is 55:1) To find their fortune in the glorious gospel that reminds us all that we’ve been bought back by the very blood of God. (Rv 5:9) It is this same gospel, then, that serves as the Spirit’s final lesson to the church at Laodicea.
A lesson about a spiritual welcome.
The entirety of these severe disciplinary remarks are bathed in the Holy Spirit’s love for this church. “As many as I love,” he say, “I rebuke and discipline. So be zealous and repent.” (Rv 3:19) “Love,” here, is suggestive of a deep, passionate affection. Christ isn’t lamblasting this church, he’s loving them in a critical way, at a critical time. Rather than laying down a tyrannical rule on a body of believers that had lost its way, the Lord Jesus comes alongside them as a parent would their children, disciplining them not out of a spirit anger or frustration but out of love. “Christ does not, therefore, love his children because he corrects them,” writes William Burkitt: “but he therefore corrects them because he loves them.”2
It’s out of love, not hatred, that the Spirit of God reprimands the Laodiceans. “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.” (Rev. 3:19) “Do not despise the Lord’s instruction, my son, and do not loathe his discipline; for the Lord disciplines the one he loves, just as a father disciplines the son in whom he delights.” (Prv 3:11–12; cf. Job 5:17–18; Prv 13:24; Heb 12:5–7) By such words he calls them to repentance, to restoration. “I want to rebuke your leisurely lifestyles and remind you of the treasure of the grace,” the Spirit seems to say. “I want to disrupt your lives of luxury and remind you of the currency of the gospel.” He succeeds his correction of them with an invitation to fellowship with him once again.
See! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. To the one who conquers I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Rv 3:20–21)
This beautiful picture of Christ opening his house to us, sitting with us, and dining with us is not only a wonderful image of the renewed communion that’s enjoyed in repentance, but is also a stirring reminder of how we ought to feast on Christ’s body. The King James renders the phrase “eat with him” as “sup with him.” The word “sup,” there, is the same word used at the Last Supper, when Christ broke the bread and distributed the cup, instituting the Eucharist in which believers of every age might remember the covenant of God’s blood poured out for them. (Lk 22:19–20) In a graphic but gracious picture, we’re made to see that Jesus’s summons to come and dine is an invitation to feast on him. “The Supper,” says Gerhard Forde, “is a place where God literally lays himself open to us and says, ‘Here you have me.’”3
And so it is that the great remedy for our lackadaisical Christianity is a continual remembrance of the gospel of Jesus’s bruised and bloodied body proffered to us on a tree. The only effectual antidote for the indifference of leisure and independence of hubris is a resounding recollection of the God who welcomes sinners to himself by giving himself to them. Such is what’s evoked at that great supper. That we have a God who welcomes sinners to feast on himself because he took their sins as his own! (2 Cor 5:21)
Leaving leisure behind.
It’s easy to see the parallels between Laodicea and the modern-day church. This, I believe, is a letter that’s tailor made for 21st century Christianity. How often are we guilty of being “lukewarm” with our faith? How easy is it to become “comfy cozy Sunday” Christians? This is who he’s addressing, those who sit in a sanctuary on Sundays but have no affiliation or affinity for the things of the gospel Monday through Saturday. It’s not that the Laodiceans weren’t true believers, it’s that they had become independent and indifferent. The luxuries they enjoyed had made them lackadaisical in their spiritual walk.
To such, the invitation to come and dine is given. To sinners, the spiritual welcome is issued to come and find rest, find peace, find hope, find life at Jesus’s feet. As he is God’s “Amen” (2 Cor 1:20), so is Christ the divine welcome for every sinner to find a haven, to find a home in him alone.
Octavius Winslow, No Condemnation in Christ Jesus: As Unfolded in the Eighth Chapter of the Epistle to the Romans (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1991), 24.
William Burkitt, Expository Notes, with Practical Observations, on the New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (Yarmouth: Keymer & Co., 1815), 943.
Gerhard Forde, Where God Meets Man: Luther’s Down-to-Earth Approach to the Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing, 1972), 85–86.